From the Point of View of the Elephant in the Room

06-04-2018, From the Point of View of the Elephant in the Room

While Watching Finding Nemo in the Middle of the Night

While Watching Finding Nemo in the Middle of the Night
Photography by Jessica Weaver

Love in the Time of Artificial Intelligence

Love in the Time of Artificial Intelligence
Photography by Jessica Weaver

Edith Wharton on Writing a War Story…or a Love Story…or a Comedic Story…or a Story Story

In September 1919, Woman’s Home Companion published a lovely little nugget of story by Edith Wharton. “Writing a War Story” is the tale of Ivy Spang, a poetess-turned-short-story-writer. Working as a nurse in France during WWI, Miss Spang is commissioned by an editor at the magazine “The Man-at-Arms.” He tells her that he wishes her to write, “A good, rousing story, Miss Spang; a dash of sentiment of course, but nothing to depress or discourage. I’m sure you take my meaning? A tragedy with a happy ending–that’s about the idea.”

In order to write her masterpiece, Miss Spang heads off to Brittany and moves in with an old governess of hers. And, like every writer before her and after her, Miss Spang hits a snag:

Edith Wharton Quote War Story 1

And, if only Miss Spang’s snags stopped at the beginning.

But no, Miss Spang suffers through questions about plot — “People don’t bother with plots nowadays” she explains to her governess.

Questions about deadlines:

 

Edith Wharton Quote War Story 2

Questions about where to find ideas; the difference between subject and treatment; chasing Inspiration; collaborators; what to do once the thing is published. What do you do if no one reads your story? Whose opinions should you listen to? What does it mean to be a woman writer in a world dominated by men?

If you have a hot second, it’d be well worth your time to read this short story — written by the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (1921 — for The Age of Innocence). All of the questions this short narrative poses show up a lot in Wharton’s work, which I’ll be talking about a lot in the next few weeks.

You can find a copy here,which includes a brief introduction to Wharton’s own participation in WWI relief efforts.

So, really, this blog post isn’t much more than a reading recommendation — but it’s an extremely enthusiastic reading recommendation. Let me know what you think when you’re done!

The Ghost in the Machine

Mary Shelley On Ghosts Quote

Mary Shelley’s “On Ghosts” is an interesting little article/essay. It’s more of a meditation on: With all the scientific advancements, with all the mysteries being explained, do we truly not believe in ghosts anymore? She begins by pointing out that myths and legends are just that: myths and legends, stories once told by unenlightened cavemen. Mankind has moved beyond such superstitious storytelling.

Or has it?

Shelley argues that when the sun’s up and all is bright, illuminated, and logical, no one would really claim that ghosts exist. Or claim that the thought of ghosts might be terrifying. Then she says, “But let it be twelve at night in a lone house…”

And, all of a sudden, these logical people are believers.

Shelley goes on to explain that there are things we don’t know with our minds but we sense with our hearts:

Mary Shelley On Ghosts Quote 2

To me, this place “beyond the soul’s ken,” that vacuum where our hopes and fears rush in to fill the space, is where good stories come from. It’s the place that can’t be touched by the harsh light of reality. It’s the place where ghosts live.

We could talk for days about grammatical matters, syntactical structures, character or plot arcs. There are entire books about Outlining: The Pros and Cons! To adjective or not to adjective? This is the science of writing. These are the skills we are taught in elementary school. These are the things that constitute a writer’s “harsh light of day.” This is the science. Structural concerns are a concern and you must know them.  A writer needs them to tell stories.

But structural concerns are not the story.

I wish I had a great definition of a good story. But it’s more something you have to feel. And you know it when you feel it.

Think of it like this.

You’re standing on a beach. Ahead of you is the ocean.

Now. There are facts that you understand about the ocean. You can give its size in miles/kilometers. You can tell me how many fathoms deep it is. You can tell me the names of men who have sailed its surface. You can explain to me how the waves are created and the ways weather plays with surges and currents.

But, anyone who has stood on the shore and looked out over the vast expanse can tell you there’s something else there. You can’t explain why you feel so small. As if you cannot be separated from the insignificant grains of sand beneath you. But how you know, if you spread your arms, you’re as large as the horizon. That feeling, that sensation, is how a good story is.

What’s funny is that I started this post thinking I could try to explain something which Mary Shelley tries to capture too…but at the end of the day both of us fall woefully short.  (“…such is the list of our ignorance.”) Her essay is lovely, but she offers only anecdotal — story — evidence of ghosts at the end. There is no proof of anything except her own feelings, her belief that “influences do exist to watch and guard us, though they be impalpable to coarser faculties.”

And I am no Mary Shelley. At the end of the day, I guess it’s about building the machine — using structural pieces of a story — and then, in the gaps that are inevitably created there, trying to breathe “our hopes and fears, in gentle gales and terrific whirlwinds” to fill the space.